The Sky Haus sits atop 3,968-foot Jay Peak, looming precariously over the ski resort like a medieval castle from Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.” The edifice has been perched there proudly for half a century, offering breathtaking views of Quebec’s Eastern Townships to the north. It’s also been witness to some of the best skiing conditions found anywhere in New England.
Few resorts blend past and present with current intrigue quite like Jay Peak Resort in the northern reaches of Vermont. That intrigue is fueled by a somewhat notorious recent history, with the resort experiencing exceptional highs and lows over the past decade. The details make for a fascinating script at a legendary resort with an uncertain future.
There’s little doubt that Jay Peak, which celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, will continue to be a major player in New England, both as a ski destination and as a year-round resort. The question, really, is “Who will ultimately own Jay?” The resort has been in the news often over the past four years for all the wrong reasons.
There’s no reason to sugarcoat it — Jay Peak currently resides in federal receivership, after agents from the Securities Exchange Commission seized the property and a sister resort, Burke Mountain, from owner Ariel Quiros (the “Q” in the oddly named Q-Burke) in 2016 amid charges of fraud. Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver, said he’s hopeful a buyer will be found for Jay by next summer.
To make things worse, according to VT Digger newspaper, Goldberg said foreign EB-5 investors who helped finance numerous upgrades at Jay Peak over the past 10 years, including a hotel complex, condos, ice rink and water park, can’t expect to recoup all their money. Goldberg said he’s “fairly certain” that many of the EB-5 investors will “incur a significant loss of their principal investment.”
EB-5 investors each ponied up at least $500,000, plus up to $50,000 in administrative fees, for the massive improvements at Jay, expanding the workforce from 300 to 1,500. That was great for the resort and the skiers and theoretically good for the investors. If their investments met job creation requirements, those investors became eligible for green cards and permanent U.S. residency. But because of the alleged fraud perpetrated by Quiros, about half of these investors don’t have permanent residency. And roughly 150 foreign immigrants in the state-run EB-5 program, which was terminated two years ago, don’t have green cards.
The resort would need to sell for $200 million to make the investors whole, reported VT Digger, but that figure seems out of reach, given that Jay Peak is assessed at $124 million. Not a good look for Jay, or Quiros, who is facing a criminal trial in 2020.
However, like many travesties, the actions of Quiros and the subsequent loss of his resorts led to something positive — a remarkable coming together of the Jay Peak community.
“There was no malfeasance on the part of Jay Peak,” said JJ Toland, Jay’s communications director since 2010. “It made us incredibly tight-knit. The team here coalesced around this traumatic event. There’s a camaraderie that comes out of trauma that can bond the group.
“We were fighting for survival,” said Toland. “But nobody left, even though we were fighting the unknown. And the past three years have been our best ever.”
The credit, said Toland, largely goes to Jay general manager Steve Wright, who was tapped by the feds to run Jay Peak after former president Bill Stenger was removed from his post for failing in his fiduciary responsibilities to the resort. Wright, said Toland, exhorted his employees to simply do what they did best, which was to run a first-rate operation.
While the feds threatened to shut down Quiros’s properties altogether, Jay, Burke and state officials advocated for a more common-sense approach. Specifically, they asked for permission to continue operations, ensuring that the people who were employed there, and the surrounding communities who rely on this economic anchor, wouldn’t be penalized along with Quiros.
Given that reprieve, the Jay Peak community responded.
“The mountain hasn’t changed,” said Toland. “What makes this place special is the people.”
Well, the people, and the snow. Locals often talk about the Jay Cloud, and it’s not idle chit chat. Considered by some to be the stuff of legend, the Jay Cloud is actually a meteorological phenomenon that, while not specific to Jay per se, still manages to produce more snow here than anyplace else in the Green Mountain State.
The technical term for the cloud is an orthographic uplift, which means those westerly winds, carrying precipitation from the Great Lakes, run smack into Jay, rise and then stall, typically producing snow. Lots and lots of snow. Rich, light, fluffy snow.
“The snow is the attraction,” said Scott Bumpus, a longtime Jay fan from Boston’s North Shore, with the conviction of a true disciple. “It’s as simple as that. They get snow when no one else does. Not Quebec, not Mont St. Anne.”
And, in reality, not anywhere else in the Northeast, with the exception of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.
“It’s totally addicting,” Bumpus said. “I can’t even ride groomers anymore because of Jay. If it’s not powder like Jay, it’s not worth it.”
In short, Jay, thanks to prevailing weather patterns, is New England skiing’s version of the old real estate mantra: location, location, location. When everyplace else has nothing, Jay’s got something. And when other areas get a dusting, Jay gets dumped on. The result is an outrageous annual snowfall that routinely threatens the 400-inch plateau.
How strong is the attraction of fresh snow? Just consider that, after Canada, which accounts for about half its visitors, Jay’s largest customer base is the Greater Boston area. So those folks are likely driving up I-93 through New Hampshire, right past Waterville Valley, Loon Mountain and Cannon, then heading north on I-91 in Vermont past Burke. It’s a haul — between four and five hours, even under ideal conditions. But great snow, and great terrain, make the trip well worthwhile.
“If you’re coming to Jay, you’re coming for the snow,” said Toland. “And if you’re coming for the snow, you know how to ski it.”
What Toland is saying is that Jay appeals to serious skiers, and that’s true, for the most part. “It’s the hardest place to ski in Vermont,” he said.
The resort, with a summit elevation of nearly 4,000 feet and 2,153 feet of vertical, currently boasts more than 50 miles of trails over almost 400 acres of skiable terrain (including 100 acres of glades) across two peaks. You’ll find 81 trails, glades and chutes, plus four entertaining and challenging terrain parks. There are nine lifts, ranging from Vermont’s only Aerial Tramway, the Jet triple on Stateside, four quads, a double and two surface lifts, all of which combine to offer a capacity of almost 13,000 skiers and boarders every hour.
The variety of terrain also is impressive, with runs that can satisfy the hard-core skiers and riders as well as novices. The trail breakdown is different than most, with 20 percent novice, 40 percent intermediate and 40 percent advanced, in addition to Jay’s four terrain parks. That advanced terrain figure — 40 percent — again speaks to Jay’s reputation as a skier’s mountain.
But keep in mind that Jay adheres to the “truth in advertising” mantra. That means the “advanced terrain” is going to test your skiing and snowboarding skills. In short, Jay doesn’t suffer fools kindly. During a recent visit, my wife and I saw too many skiers and riders who had clearly gotten in over their head, leaving them to skid down steep slopes, scraping off precious snow.
To the resort’s defense, Jay bends over backward to caution skiers of trail conditions in plain and honest terms, and the signage, from the ticket window to the rental shop to the lifts, backs up that claim. Sadly, not enough people pay attention, or have an over-inflated sense of their own abilities.
Like many New England ski hills — notably Sugarloaf in Maine — Jay is known for its steep pitches from the resort’s two summits before the trails gradually level off to more reasonable inclines near the bottom.
On Stateside, I love the crisp turns on The Jet, Haynes, Mont L’Entrepide and Kitzbuehel, but I’ll wander off to the trees at Timbuktu, Kitz Woods and Hell’s Woods if I need a fiber fix. U.N. typically offers challenging bumps, wall to wall. The Jet Triple Chair is a bit of an oxymoron, since its not a high-speed lift, but it’s plenty serviceable.
Tramside, the steeps on JFK, Green Beret, 601 and Northwest Passage are almost intoxicating first thing in the morning, especially if Frosty the Snowman stopped by overnight. My two girls, when they were younger, were more likely to opt for intermediate trails like Alligator Alley, Northway and Upper Goat Run and Green Mountain Boys until their legs got acclimated. These days, I’m trying to keep up with them.
The Jay snow crew does a commendable job keeping much of that natural snow on the trails, but invariably a good portion of that bounty collects in the trees, due to the aforementioned winds. That’s when Jay’s glades shine. The chutes and glades off Jay’s summit are some of the best anywhere on the East Coast. Ripping first tracks on the Face Chutes or Tuckerman’s Chute after a fresh snowfall is one of life’s great white-knuckle pleasures. There’s Beaver Pond Glade and Andre’s Paradise off Ullr’s Dream (which my wife and daughters, who aren’t big tree-ski fans, can use to scoot around the glades) by the West Basin, and Vertigo, Deliverance and Canyon Land as they angle toward the Bonaventure Chair.
At the end of the day, though, trying to rate the runs at Jay is a something of a semantic exercise — when the snow is flying, they’re all good. Period. Snowmaking covers 80 percent of the terrain, which is decent but, to be perfectly honest, could be better (it’s understandable if resort officials tend to rely a bit too heavily on Mother Nature). The grooming, however, is absolutely top notch.
Concerned about traveling with the kids? Don’t be. First of all, if you’re staying on property, there are a number of fun events throughout the calendar and great deals and programs for youngsters. Half- and full-day daycare is available, but you don’t want your kids in daycare. Jay has a well-deserved reputation for nurturing the next generation of rambunctious little grommets, precisely because it’s not a mountain that pampers anyone. There are Ski + Ride School programs for just about every age, and every ability level, so I’ll only mention a couple that stand out.
The new “Vennedag” Guided Groups takes its name from the Norwegian term “Friends Day.” Essentially, this fabulous program pairs friends, regardless of ability level, with a knowledgeable guide to explore the resort. It’s a distinct departure from the traditional approach of instruction, where students are paired based on ability. The idea, said Toland, is that friends want to stick together, and everyone improves quicker if they’re in an environment where they’re having fun.
Likewise, the Guided Discovery Program provides a wonderful opportunity to learn the sport without making a big financial commitment. Participants can get rental equipment — skis or snowboards — and access the beginner terrain alongside the Stateside moving carpet, while Ski + Ride School instructors line the slopes to offer instruction on request. The program is available, free of charge, until 12:30 each day. If participants want to keep skiing/riding past lunchtime, they can upgrade at that point. Brilliant.
What else to do
There’s also plenty of “off-mountain” activities for the entire family. The resort’s former president, Stenger, recognized that if Jay was going to convince people to drive for hours on end, past all those other ski areas, it needed to offer more than just great skiing. So much of the improvements over the past decade emphasized off-mountain activities.
Start with a pair of arcades. Located right across from the Stateside Hotel, Clips & Reels Recreational Center offers a 142-seat cinema, a draught house, an arcade that leans toward the virtual reality world, and a Clip ‘n Climb facility that offers plenty of fun and challenging climbing elements. The second — the Elevation 1851’ Family Arcade — is situated on Tramside.
The Pump House Indoor Waterpark, attached to Hotel Jay, looks like something out of a futuristic Jules Verne fantasy novel and allows guests to surf, climb, float the Big River or simply chill. La Chute stands 65 feet high, where guests can hit 45 miles an hour, a full 360-degree rotation before being spilled into the pool. Flowriding — a wild cross between skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding — is all the rage for all ages. The nearby Ice Haus hosts a slew of hockey tournaments but also offers public skates and “stick and puck” sessions (and rentals for each).
Speaking of fantasies, the decadent Taiga Fitness Studio, located in the Tram Haus Lodge, is an après-ski dream. Massage therapy choices include the more traditional deep tissue, Swedish, and sports treatments, as well as hot stone therapy, shiatsu massage and reflexology. Jay’s Nordic Center has more than 20 kilometers of skate-skiing trails, and more than five kilometers of snowshoe trails. You can even bring along your fat bike for a spin.
Finally, for something really fun and different, check out Eden Dog Sledding (edendogsledding.com; 802-635-9070) in Eden Mills — 15 miles away, but like Jay Peak itself, well worth the drive.
Where to stay
On Tramside, the fabulous Tram Haus Lodge, with 57 suites, is a wonderful ode to the glorious Austrian lodges of yesteryear. It also offers a rental, repair and demo center, as well as a fitness area. Next door (connected by a tunnel, festooned with hilarious Jay Peak posters from years past), the sprawling Hotel Jay and Conference Center boasts 176 rooms, ranging from regular hotel rooms to three-bedroom suites. Most include kitchenettes or full kitchens (a great way to save a few bucks). The hotel is attached to the Pump House, with direct access, and a short walk from the Ice Haus. One word of caution — make sure you specifically request a “mountain view” room if you don’t want to get stuck with windows looking directly into the Pump House. That might work for families, but that backdrop is hardly conducive to a romantic getaway (my wife nearly had a panic attack when we were assigned one of these rooms, but the hotel staff quickly accommodated our request to change). The Stateside Hotel offers the resort’s most affordable lodging options, with 85 rooms (the resort provides unlimited shuttle service between the Stateside and Tramside areas). The Clubhouse Suites by the Nordic Center are a little more secluded, as are the numerous privately owned condominiums and townhouses that are available to rent.
The Inglenook Lodge (inglenookvermont.com; 800-331-4346) is a real throwback, and that’s a compliment. A swimming pool, sauna, spa and massage service complete the Inglenook experience.
The Jay Village Inn (thejayvillageinn.com; 802-988-2306) is another all-inclusive lodge with an excellent restaurant. Looking for cozy? Our fave intimate accommodation is the pet-friendly Phineas
Where to eat
Après-ski dining options have increased tenfold at Jay in the past 10 years. The development at Jay’s Tramside area has included a number of terrific restaurants, from frugal to fancy. I love Miso Hungry, housed in a former tram car, at the base of the tram area, for a quick lunch of ramen noodles and broth (Miso Toh Kome is located at the bottom of the Jet Triple Chair on Stateside). Other popular Tramside spots include Alice’s Table, The Foundry Pub & Grille, and Mountain Dick’s Pizza. The Stateside Hotel houses Howie’s Diner and the Bullwheel Bar.
The Nordic Center also offers The Clubhouse Grille. Off property, The Belfry (thebelfryvt.com, 802-326-4400) on Route 242 in Montgomery Center is a local institution, with homemade soups and desserts that will ease any après-ski craving. It can get crowded, but that’s the price you pay for popularity. The stories alone are worth rubbing elbows. The same holds for Bernie’s Restaurant (802-326-4682), where midweek Mexican nights attract huge crowds; the hearty German/Austrian offerings at Big Jay Tavern (bigjaytavern.com, 802-326-6688); and The Inn Restaurant (theinn.us, 802-326-4391).